Children playing next to a reputed house of prostitution on Tatnall Street, Wilmington, Delaware, 1910.
In February 1889 a group of women activists presented a petition to the Delaware General Assembly with 10 yards of signatures of Delaware residents. This petition, presented by the Delaware Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, called for the state legislature to raise the age of consent. At that time under Delaware law the age of consent was a shockingly low seven. (W.C.T.U. Petition, Every Evening, February 12, 1889).
Sometimes misunderstood to refer to marriage, the age of consent in question actually had to do with the law of rape, similar to today’s statutory rape laws. Under English common law, which was adopted by Delaware and the other states, rape was defined as ”the carnal knowledge of a woman forcibly and against her will.” 2 William Blackstone, Commentaries *210.
In order to convict a man of rape, both force and lack of consent had to be proved, except in the case of a girl under the age of consent who was considered to not know right from wrong and was therefore incapable of consenting. The traditional common law age of consent was 10 or 12. In Delaware the age of consent was 10 until 1871 when it was lowered to seven. 14 Del. Laws 105 (1871) The same law instituted the death penalty for sex with a girl below the age of consent, before that the penalty had been up to 10 years in prison. It was probably the increase in the penalty which caused the age to be lowered, although reticence at the time to even discuss rape, means there is little mention of the change in law in the newspapers of 1871 and no legislative history.
In 1895 Delaware still topped The Arena’s list of states with a low age of consent.
In the 1880s a nationwide campaign began to raise the age of consent. This campaign was led by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union. Nowadays often dismissed as a group of humorless do-gooders who didn’t want anybody to drink, in the 19th century the WCTU was the largest and most powerful women’s group in the country. Besides their interest in the prohibition of alcohol, they also campaigned against social problems such as prostitution and violence against women, as well as promoting the rights of women to own property and vote. At the 1886 annual meeting of the Delaware WCTU, Delaware Union president Annie H. Martindale told fellow members that “the laws of our own State have drawn upon us the condemnation of shocked and surprised women throughout the country, the age of legal consent being only seven years, the lowest probably of any state in the Union. We must join our sisters in this holy work.”
By 1889 the Delaware WCTU had spurred the Delaware General Assembly to act to reform the age of consent law. The WCTU’s petition asked for the age of consent to be raised to 18. As in most states, the men of the Delaware General Assembly were not willing to go that far. They compromised by not technically raising the age of consent, but by passing a law defining a new crime, making it a misdemeanor to use or procure a female under the age of 15 for the purpose of sexual intercourse or to employ a female under 15 in a house of prostitution. 18 Del. Laws 686 (1889) That age was eventually raised to 18.
Technically, the age of consent in the Delaware rape law remained seven until 1972, when the state completely overhauled its criminal code, replacing the old common law definition of crimes with a modern criminal code. The laws relating to rape and sexual assault have continued to be reformed. As recent controversies over sexual assault on campus have shown the question of consent as a defense to the charge of rape is still a matter for activism and reform today.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004002268/PP/
14 The Arena 418 (1895)
Delaware Criminal Code with Commentary. (State of Delaware, 1973)
Leslie K. Dunlap. The Reform of Rape Law and the Problem of White Men: Age-of-Consent Campaigns in the South, 1885-1910, in Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History (Martha Hodes ed. 1999)
Jane Larson, ‘Even A Worm Will Turn at Last’: Rape Reform in Late Nineteenth-Century America, 9 Yale J. L. & Human. 1 (1997)
Mary Odem, Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885-1920 (1995)
Aaron M. Powell, et al. The Shame of America—The Age Of Consent Laws in the United States: A Symposium, 11 The Arena 192 (1895)